David Boucher on Working with Pixar, Randy Newman, Andrew Bird, & Bob Clearmountain

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The Toy Story 3 scoring session, led by composer Randy Newman, records the musical score at Sony Studios on December 9, 2009 in Culver City, Calif. (Photo by Deborah Coleman / Pixar)

Discovering the best way to make initial contact with David Boucher took weeks. The L.A.-based recording/mixing engineer doesn’t have a website—a remarkable feat these days—and he has no interest in social media.

He does have an email address (two, in fact), but friends of his keep it close to the vest. When compared to the numerous audio engineers desperately spamming the internet for gigs on a daily basis, Boucher’s low profile is a refreshing change. And his lack of online presence certainly doesn’t appear to impede his ability to keep landing fantastic work.

Despite his inclination to stay out of the spotlight, Boucher has labored over albums by acclaimed artists including Andrew Bird, Aimee Mann, Indigo Girls, Randy Newman, as well as Lindsey Buckingham and Christine McVie of Fleetwood Mac. He’s also credited for his engineering mastery on film scores and/or songs featured in Moana, Frozen, Monsters University, and Toy Story 3, to name a few.

Most recently, when we were speaking on the phone for this interview, he was working on Pixar’s next animated feature, Coco, about a 12-year-old aspiring musician named Miguel Rivera.

If there’s one lesson to be learned here, it’s this: Our industry still runs on connections made by people (often in person), coupled with a strong skill set, and a good heap of luck.

Boucher, who grew up in Atlanta but later began his career at Right Track Recording in NYC following college, certainly has all three criteria to thank: He has been refining his audio skills since the age of 13, a friend from college gave him a heads up about Bob Clearmountain looking for a new assistant, and it was a serendipitous event in a music shop that started his ongoing collaboration with producer Mitchell Froom.

Below, find out more about Boucher’s approach to film music, his early days assisting Bob Clearmountain, and his predictions about the future of mixing.

How did you first get started recording?

My first recording experience was with my band when I was 13. I had been enlisted to be the one to make the tape that we’d sell at our shows. We didn’t really have many resources —basically just the money that we made mowing lawns in the summer.

I bought a 4-track and a couple of microphones at a garage sale. [W]e even used a pair of headphones backwards as a microphone for the vocal mic because the singer could sort of wear the headphones on his face as he was playing the guitar.

It was really a circus because we didn’t even have mic stands. I had a Crown PZM mic in front of the drums. I actually jammed an SM57 into the side of the 4-track right into the XLR connector because I only had one mic stand, so we just used whatever we could in a makeshift studio in my basement.

I read elsewhere that you worked with your father on actually building a recording studio in your basement. Tell me a little about that.

Yeah, my dad is an interesting guy. He has all these skills that you would never know about. His father was really good with his hands and his father was a really good hunter and loved fishing and was a real outdoorsman, but my father didn’t seem to like any of that stuff.

He worked for IBM for 31 years. He was good at construction so we learned how to do plumbing together and electrical together—most of which he kind of already knew. He knew how to hang drywall and do that kind of stuff so it was our first real bonding experience outside of sports.

I remember it vividly because there was an unfinished part of our basement that was basically just the foundation, and we took a corner of it and made it a studio. It was not properly wired but it was a space for me in this sort of life that I would end up existing in. It was kind of wild to see him do it.

How old were you at that time?

13 or 14 years old.

That’s a pretty early time to get into recording.

Yeah, I don’t know what happened. It dawned on me that I felt like I was better at music in the recording and mixing world than I was in the performing world, even though I loved to play and I still love to play.

If I have an opportunity to play on a record, I will, but I soon met many people that were pretty scarily good on their instrument and I knew I wasn’t at that level of performance. I just wanted to continue to participate and that was a way for me to do it.

You eventually went to the University of Miami. What made you decide to go there as opposed to a more music-centric school like Berklee College of Music?

I don’t know if it was a prejudice of mine but I felt like the University of Miami was a proper education, where I would get a real music degree in performance and a real engineering degree—a minor in engineering.

I was a little wary of the idea of a vocational school, which is not a fair label to put on those places, but I was a teenager at the time, so my impression was that University of Miami was a proper school. I didn’t want to go somewhere just to learn how to do one thing.

We learned all the technical aspects of how to make things work. There were classes on how to solder and troubleshoot equipment and align tape machines—all the things that would go into someone who is a “tech” at a proper studio.

There was very little training there about how to be an assistant that would then help you move up to be a first engineer. It was all about being an island. I still fix all of my own gear, except for things that stymied me but the guy I go to [for repairs sometimes] was another University of Miami grad and he’s great.

Do you find music to be the most compelling part or the technical aspects of engineering?

I’m definitely a musician first, but I find that my creativity and my willingness to get deep into a project is enhanced by scratching that itch of the technical part. It’s almost a regenerative process to sit down and just work through your gear to fix the things that have broken through the process of production or the things that you found that could have been better.

I have a lot of vintage gear and some homemade gear and by the end of the project you’re like, “Oh, I wish this had a little more—I don’t know—of one particular characteristic.” Then you can take that time—while maybe the producer you work with is doing pre-production—to dig into that gear and make it better.

On the last album that I just finished with Mitchell Froom, one side of my EMT plate reverb just started making this horrible screeching noise like I was strangling a cat. It’s a mono plate on that record now, so it’s just one side. In this time off between projects, I completely recapped it, picked all new tubes for it, got it all sorted, and I installed it the other day and it sounds bigger and more beautiful than it ever has. So it’s pretty gratifying that you can put your hands on something and it can improve so much.

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